Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Six Years with a Ducati 916





Several years ago I wrote an article on riding and livingwith one of the best known superbikes of the 20th century – the mythical Ducati 916, the object of desire to anyone who was in the sportbike scene in the 1990s and 2000s. Now it’s been six years since I purchased my beloved 916, and I still cherish it and ride it as much I can. In these six years of ownership I have learned a great deal about the 916 through riding, wrenching and research. My bike has seen me through tough times, good times, and everything in between. It has become a part of my personality and my lifestyle. So for the benefit of those who are interested, I present part two of my life with the Legend - a rambling screed that pays respect to the mythology of the 916 while sharing my personal story, told through my experience with a singular machine.



Six Years

The bike as I found it at a used motorcycle dealer. It was well used with 22 000 miles and had some ugly mods, but it was mechanically sound and had been properly maintained.

I bought my 916 in a different economic climate, when values were strong and demand was high. 2006 was a different time, one that seems long lost in the current era of shaky finances and doom-and-gloom economics. After 2008 the market shifted considerably in every sector, and motorcycles were affected as much as anything else.

Before the recession began values of desmoquattro superbikes were fairly high, particularly here in Canada. When I bought my example most clean 916-996s were fetching over 10 000$. Rare variants like SPSs were going for double that. Now I’m shocked by how inexpensive these bikes have become. A decent 916/996 can be had for 5000 - 6000, a clean SPS can be found for under 10 000. Here in Canada we had an additional factor working against values – rising registration rates in Quebec.

My first ride on the 916. My father and I went to watch a trackday at Circuit Mont Tremblant north of Montreal.
In this province your registration is paid yearly and includes a form of limited medical liability insurance. In the mid-2000s a few ignorant politicians began a campaign claiming that motorcycle riders were costing the government too much money in medical claims. Coincidentally this claim arose at the same time as the SAAQ (the Quebec provincial DMV and insurer) was showing a deficit that needed to be turned around before 2015. They instituted a series of substantial price hikes for registration of “sport bikes”, as defined by the SAAQ. A blacklist was issued for bikes produced since 1985, and is updated every year. Any full-fairing sport bike over 500ccs is classified as a high-risk vehicle, regardless of actual performance. Naked bikes are excluded – so a new Ducati Streetfighter is not high risk, but a 1987 750 F1 is. Wrap your head around that one. The criteria for the blacklist are the presence of upswept exhausts, full fairings, the relation of the footpegs to the handlebars, and the power-to-weight ratio (these factors are evaluated individually, not all together, so a “slow” bike with sporty style is still considered a high risk machine).

What is the cost of having your bike on the blacklist? Last year the rate was 1500$ a year for the plate, not including your regular collision and liability insurance. This year it was lowered slightly to 1100$ after negotiations with lobby groups, but the rumour is that this is only temporary and rates will be raised once again. Additionally rates for a motorcycle license renewal (paid yearly) were raised. A standard bike over 400ccs is 500$ a year. Before all this nonsense began all bikes over 400cc were about 250$ a year, the same as it costs to register a car in this province. The high-risk rates are supposed to eventually reach 1800$ a year if the SAAQ has its way.


My father with his BMW and my Ducati. The BMW K100RS was my first bike, I learned to ride on it when I was 17.

When the rates were instituted and the blacklist published sales of sportbikes dropped significantly. Heavy discounting began. Used values plummeted. Retailers were left in shock, though they did enjoy a spike in the sale of naked sportbikes for obvious reasons. Protests and lobbying went nowhere. The cash grab was on, and motorcyclists in Quebec had no say in the matter.     

Do I regret having bought mine when values were high, and registration was spiking? Not at all. I didn’t buy my bike as an investment. I bought it to ride it. But looking at these rock bottom prices all I can say is it is a very good time to buy one of these machines if you had otherwise been hesitant. Anything classified as sport in Quebec is sure to have a pretty decent discount, so come visit la Belle Province if you are looking for a deal.

On the McGill campus. Now you can’t drive onto campus, vehicles have been banned. Times have changed.

That is the climate I entered, straddling my shiny red Ducati. It certainly wasn’t easy for me. I was studying history at McGill University while working as a mechanic at a Triumph dealer for a pittance. As I was under 25 at the time, my insurance rates were exceptionally high - I paid over 1000$ a year for insurance, in addition to my registration fees. None of this deterred me. I absolutely adored my 916 and happily made sacrifices in other areas of my life to accommodate my Ducati. All I really need to be happy is a home, food, and my bike. I would escape on the bike as much as I could. I rode it everywhere. I commuted. I toured. I blasted backroads across Quebec, New York, Vermont, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI… I took every opportunity I could to ride aimlessly.

Riding for me has always been an activity that puts me into an odd state of serenity. I say odd because it calms me while shattering my nerves. Riding a hardcore sport machine through a tight road is a draining experience, one that demands your full concentration and energy. Riding a 916 is a raw experience - condensed. Whenever I get off the 916, I am in a state of blissful shock. My body vibrates and aches, my heart pounds through my chest, my mind running in overdrive – all followed by calm. It’s my medication to inoculate against monotony.

The thing is, I’ve only felt like this in rare instances. Usually when I picked up a new bike I’d have my moments of euphoria, followed by boredom. I would tire quickly of most machines. The 916 is different. Riding it never gets old. It’s the only motorcycle I’ve ever ridden that gives me that magical sense of excitement every time I take it out. Nothing else has the same feel. That’s why I have kept the 916 for this long, and it’s why I will never sell it.

Feel

At the Canadian superbike race at Mont Tremblant, with the Montreal Ducati Owner’s Club. I was President of the club at the time.

There is something particular about these early desmoquattros that makes them incredibly endearing. It’s not polish – it’s the exact opposite. They are rough. Raw. Visceral. They feel like a barely contained fury that requires – demands - your full attention at all times. They are not easy bikes to ride. I find most modern sportbikes are point-and-squirt machines. They insulate the rider from the road, doing most of the work for him or her. They handle, accelerate and brake effortlessly. When they bite back, they do it suddenly and violently, usually after you have unwittingly exceeded a certain threshold. The 916 is not like that. It speaks to you and progressively communicates the limits.  But you have to work with the bike to get the best out of it.

Most riders probably won’t appreciate this. In fact it can be tiring, if you start to get lazy and stop focussing on the precision of your inputs it tends to punish you with rough response. The handling is slow and stable, which means it is absolutely planted but if you don’t make firm inputs it tends to under steer and run wide. The power band is not as broad as you would expect and you have to keep it on the boil to keep the motor happy – she does not like being lugged in a high gear. The brakes are wooden at the front, nonexistent at the rear, and you need to be firm with the lever to get them to work properly. All of this translates to a rather old-fashioned experience. This is not a modern machine. It requires effort to ride properly, and if you aren’t committed you won’t have fun.

To the uninitiated this all probably sounds like damning stuff. How did such a machine become so legendary? Well, it’s only part of the story. All of those rough qualities are what makes the 916 so entertaining to ride. You feel connected to the machine in a way that is becoming less common in this age of electronic doohickery, with ABS, traction control, and stability programs getting integrated into our ever-faster machines. The 916 is a pure experience, one that isn’t dulled by any assistance. It also give remarkable feedback to the rider, something that is hard to describe and even harder to find in other machines. There is some perfect combination of chassis flex and suspension function that translates the grip and action of the wheels directly to the rider. You just know what the bike is doing at all time. You can feel what is happening under the wheels, with gentle sensations being channelled up into the palms of your hands and the seat of your pants. If I were to summarize the uniqueness of the 916 in one quality, it would be that sensation of feedback. Everything else feels numb in comparison.

The author with his baby at the local Ducati dealership.

The handling was always the strong point of the 916 design. It was built to win races, and it did (against much more powerful competition, no less). Period reviews always commented on how stable the bike felt, and this is certainly what sticks with you when you ride it. You have to give firm inputs to lean it over, and it responds well and with progressive motion – it won’t surprise you by over amplifying your inputs, something that is a bit of an issue with the sharp handling sport bikes that have become all the rage since the late 90s. This stability lends a completely unshakable quality to the ride – I’ve hit substantial bumps and dips mid-corner with absolutely no change in direction or shaking of the front end. It just goes where you point it. If you break traction at the rear, it slides out gently and with lots of that aforementioned feedback. Spinning the rear is  free of drama and very well controlled. Everything is predictable with the 916. It is all the more remarkable when you consider how antiquated the chassis design is. Steel trellis frames are a holdover from the 70s and 80s that have long been eclipsed by twin spar designs. But in the Ducati’s case, it works.

The brakes are a weak point of the design. I run stock calipers with braided steel lines and later 996 rotors. Stopping power is adequate but not spectacular. The lever is firm and slightly wooden at the front, while the rear is completely worthless. You would not be amiss to upgrade the brakes, but I get by just fine with the stockers. Strangely they feel quite weak at low speeds, but at higher rates they work better. One plus is that you are not likely to lock up the wheels inadvertently due to an overly sensitive bite.

The clutch is the classic dry system that is now being phased out of the Ducati line-up. I think this is a shame, as the clutch adds so much character to the machine – longevity be damned. It clatters, clanks, and jingles in time with the motor. Each perfect shift is punctuated with a satisfying clink. It’s an essential part of the soundtrack and it is always a good conversation piece. It demands a precise hand on the lever and the throttle – fail to blip the throttle correctly or miss the engagement and it will send a sharp vibration up your spine. Stock lever pull is stiff and tiring, but really easy to rectify – take off two of the six pressure plate springs. As long as your clutch pack is in good nick you have no risk of slippage, and you get a nice light lever feel for free.

The gearbox always had a reputation for being finicky but I’ve never had any issues. My Suzuki SV had a far worse gearbox that had as many false neutrals as gears. Take the time to adjust the pedal height properly for good leverage and you will never miss a shift. After that, you just need to practice your clutch engagement and throttle control – as I’ve already mentioned, this is a bike that demands your attention. Get sloppy and it will fight back. And take a moment to locate the neutral indicator wiring – take it apart, scuff the contacts, and grease them properly. After that you will have a much more reliable neutral light. You're welcome.

On the streets of Montreal near the Atwater Market.
The desmoquattro motor is a highlight of the bike. It’s an old design, having been introduced in the mid-1980s as a replacement for the air-cooled SOHC Pantah derivatives. It isn’t that powerful when you look at litre bikes making nearly 200hp nowadays. But it is a great motor, and it suits the character of the bike very well. One thing that immediately struck me when I first rode the bike – this isn’t a torque-addled motor. It has a reasonably strong midrange but nothing close to the thump you’d expect from a big twin. Anything below 4000 rpm feels weak and the driveline lash is substantial, so lugging it in a high gear is not a good idea.

Once it clears 6000 rpm the engine sings. The intake howl hardens into a blaring roar while the exhaust shifts from basso-profundo to staccato machine-gun blast. The noise and feel is magnificent and vicious. I get chills every time I hear that spectacular intake roar. The power surges up to redline with no appreciable drop off; it doesn’t run out of steam at high revs like you would expect. It’s remarkably high-revving for a twin like this, though it is still sluggish in response when you compare it to most modern fours. The motor is quite tractable in any gear, though 6th is too high for anything but highway cruising. At low revs it thumps and thunders along like you would expect, then at higher rpms it takes on a different character. Even if it isn’t the fastest, most powerful thing out there it never ceases to be entertaining. It is enough power to get into trouble, and I have no desire for more. The sound and fury of the engine is enough to keep me happy, and 115 odd-horsepower is plenty for road duty.

Wrenching

When I got my bike it performed well (considering it had 22 000 miles at the time) but I felt it was due for a refresh. I tore down the motor to give the heads a once over and check the cylinder condition. There was some minor oil blow by around the valve guides, which is common, but the pistons and barrels still had lots of life left. The biggest problem was carbon blow by around the valve seats; the intake valves were crusted with build-up that was visible through the intake ports. I rectified this by lapping the valves and giving the heads and pistons a thorough cleaning. I did this while studying for final exams at university; I had the heads apart on my desk, and I would take a break every hour to lap a valve and check the clearance to ease my mind. A Zen exercise indeed.

A few rocker arms were beginning to flake chrome, and several more had signs that they were about to flake. Fortunately most were still in good order so a full set wasn’t needed. I replaced the dodgy rockers with hardened items courtesy of Guy Martin at MBP, who happens to live not far from me in the West Island of Montreal. During my second valve adjustment I installed a set of his upgraded valve collets. Turned out that Guy had worked at the same shop I had, under the same boss. We both learned from the same mentor, though Guy took it on as a career many years ago whereas I kept it as a hobby. I never did like working on other people’s machines. Guy is a stand-up fellow who has always been handy when I had issues or questions - once a full rebuild is due he is my first and only choice for the job.

I spent a winter going over the bike from stem to stern. I tidied up the electrics and fixed minor issues here and there, upgrading bits and pieces as I went along. I call it a rolling restoration project – it still isn’t done, as I have a laundry list of things I want to attend to in the future. When I got the bike it had a host of less-than-tasteful modifications, most of which I pitched and replaced with original parts. Lets just say that I am not fond of carbon-fibre that doesn’t serve a structural or weight reduction purpose.

The bike after I tidied everything up and ditched the ugly mods. The previous owner had powder coated the frame, subframe, wheels and swingarm black.

I made some adjustments to the fueling, namely a Senna EPROM, trim adjustments with a CO monitor, TPS adjustment, and a throttle body sync. Once all that was done, along with the lapped valves, the motor was MUCH stronger. Seems that I was losing quite a bit of compression through the leaky valve seats, and the new EPROM fixed the 5000 rpm flat spot of the stock fuel map. After my winter refresh it ran better and pulled harder, with very precise response. I still judge other bikes by the fuel metering of the 916. Half throttle is half throttle, full is full. On-off transitions are smooth and easily controlled with delicate inputs. I despise non-linear throttle response that amplify small inputs and dull bigger ones. It can take getting used to the linear nature of a 916 throttle. It took me a while to forget the muscle memory from my previous Japanese bikes.  

Since that overhaul I’ve just done normal maintenance. I installed a new Surflex clutch pack with aluminium plates to reduce a little weight. The only issues I’ve had have been with burned-out engine sensors. I used to do a lot of commuting miles in stop-and-go traffic, which had a tendency to run the motor damn hot. So far I’ve burned out the fan switch sensor, the oil pressure sender, the starter solenoid, and the intake air sensors. Mechanically, I’ve never had an issue. I’ve put 10 000 miles on since my initial major service, and it’s still running flawlessly. The intake valves remain spotless since my head job, so I know my lapping has held up.

Things that remain to be done – my forks are getting worn out, and need to be rebuilt with a new set of valves and springs. I need to source a set of original side panels with Cagiva graphics, to get rid of some ugly stickers that are clear coated in place. It could use a new set of valve guides and a little head work, and I suspect the oil galley plug is a ticking time bomb, so a rebuild will be in the cards in the next few years. I want a proper monoposto aluminium sub frame. Someday I’d like to get a set of original 5-spoke Marchesinis. And so on… The project never ends.

Riding

At a bike show in Moncton, New Brunswick. I’m not a big guy, so the small size of the 916 fits me well.
Something that is immediately apparent about the 916 series is their small size. Sure, there are more compact bikes out there, but you aren’t really prepared for how the Ducati disappears beneath you. It’s narrow and heavily sculpted around the midsection for a tight rider fit, and the reach to the ground is quite low. Nowadays many sport bikes have been trending towards more extreme suspension geometry, which means high ride height with a low front. Most bikes that I’ve ridden have kept me on my tiptoes. With the 916 I can stand flat foot with my knees bent, and the relatively low centre of gravity makes it easy to move around - which is good, because the turning circle is ridiculously wide.

Comfort is a relative thing. I am 5’ 7” with a 30-inch inseam and I weigh 140 lbs. I find the 916 fits me perfectly and the controls fall easily into place with minimal adjustment. In the 1990s the 916 had one of the worst reputations for rider comfort – having ridden a lot of bikes over the years, I would say more recent stuff is far more unpleasant. The problem is twofold – a very thin seat pad, and very low and narrow clip-ons. My only concession to comfort is a Corbin seat, which keeps my backside from getting bruised. I have gotten used to the bars, but they still tend to cut off the circulation to my hands in short order. You can always get handlebar risers to aid the issue, but I’m a die-hard sport rider and I prefer the feel of narrow controls with hard rubber grips.

Two generations of legendary Ducatis together. The 900 SS is owned by a friendly fellow in Moncton who has a few beautiful Italian classics in his garage.

Pulling away from a stop you notice that the gearing is high. Even with a lowered final drive, first gear is pretty damned tall. It’s a traditional Ducati quirk that gives the 916 a very long-legged feel. It also contributes to a pretty impressive fuel economy on the highway; I’ve measured as high as 50 (imperial) miles per gallon on some of my longer trips. On long sweeping roads the broad gears makes sense. Around town, well – you shouldn’t be riding it around town. Buy a Monster if you want to commute.

And yes, I have commuted extensively with my Duc. I can safely say it is not a fun exercise. The tall gearing, dry clutch and thumping power pulses give the bike a lot of driveline lash at low speed. Heat is a problem, both for the engine and for the rider. The stock radiator fan isn’t up to snuff in traffic. The under seat exhaust roasts your legs if you are wearing thin pants – I’ve learned to always wear armoured pants, even in hot weather, to insulate my legs against pipe burn. Low speed running isn’t great either, as the fueling tends to be rough and erratic at idle. I had problems with stalling until I synchronized the throttle bodies and zeroed the throttle position sensor. All together it makes for an unpleasant experience, exacerbated by the completely useless mirrors.

The best of the 70s and the best of the 90s.

Once you are underway the suspension is firm and nicely controlled, but definitely errs towards the side of a heavier (175 lb) rider. I’ve always had issues with stock spring rates due to my slight weight. My bike came with an Ohlin’s rear that I was able to adjust to a reasonable action, but the front forks are still too firm for my weight. I’ll get them rebuilt with some lighter springs and new valving, it’s on my never-ending list of things-to-do.

The steering is slow and unwavering. It’s hard to convey how stable a 916 is through turns. It’s absolutely planted and virtually nothing will shake it off course. Headshake is nonexistent. It inspires confidence, and combined with the delicate chassis feedback it makes for a superb back road experience. Of course if you prefer quicker steering and sharper response all aspects of the geometry are adjustable. The 916 was famous for offering an adjustable front rake on a street machine; it also has an adjustable rear ride height rod. You can dial it in for your riding style and intended use with some simple fiddling. If you are unsure of which position the rake is set to, try locking the steering. If it locks, it’s in “road” (24.30). If it doesn’t, it’s in “race” (23.30).

Roads


Somewhere in Ontario on a touring run.
I use my Ducati as a do-all motorcycle. I still get strange looks of disbelief when I tell other riders that I use a 15-year-old 916 as a touring and commuting mount. The reason for this is part necessity, part foolish bravado.

I don’t own a car. I do not have any desire to own one, nor do I need one in downtown Montreal. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 17 and have logged more miles on bikes than I’ve ever driven in cars. I’ve owned one car, briefly, and five bikes. My bike is my one and only form of transportation aside from my two legs. I’d love to have a stable of motorcycles with specific roles, but I don’t have the funds or the parking space to accommodate it (and don’t forget those crippling Quebec registration rates). I adore my 916 far too much to ever give it up for something more “sensible”, “comfortable”, or “sane”.

When I need to get somewhere the Duc comes out. It doesn’t matter if it is 5 miles or 500 miles, it’s my only ride and it gets used. I have nothing but disdain for trailer and garage queen bikes that only get used on odd occasions. I loathe myself for having put my bike into storage for two years while funds were tight, but I did it so that I wouldn’t have to sell it. I’ve invested too much money, time and blood into my Ducati to have it languishing in the corner of a garage. I like to be “the guy” who uses his 916 in improbable ways - the crazy masochistic man who sacrifices comfort and reliability at the altar of the Italian sport-riding gods. The man who throws common sense and rational thinking out the window. The man who uses the least practical tool for the job, just so he can say he did.

So when I decided to ride across the eastern part of Canada on a three province, 2500-mile tour (that’s 4000 kms for the metrically minded), there was only one bike for the job.

My setup for the cross-Maritime tour. I carried everything in a backpack and a tankbag.
My journey on the 916 took me from downtown Montreal to the edge of Cape Breton, then back again, in a little over a week. I prepared for the trip by installing a new set of tires, changing the oil, checking to make sure nothing was falling off, and buying a lot of ibuprofen. That was it. The speedometer cable broke within a hundred miles of home due to the dealer improperly rotating the drive housing when they installed the front tire. So I spent the remainder of the trip without any concern as to my speed or mileage. My only guidance was a paper map slipped into my tank bag. My only storage was that tank bag and a large backpack that I kept on my back for the entire journey, as I didn’t want to bungee cord the pack to my delicate tail section. I only carried what I needed – food, drink, clothes, map, chain lube, painkillers, and a small toolkit (which I never had to use, for the record). When I tour I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t spend ages preparing the bike and obsessing over details. I don’t carry extra equipment. I just take what I need, strap it to my back, and take off. Impromptu touring is the most satisfying form of escape.

On the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I met up with a few friends on the island after travelling from Montreal solo.
My best rides have always been the ones I didn’t plan in advance, and they are usually the longest as well. There is nothing like hitting the road and riding aimlessly, exploring new roads and small towns, constantly telling yourself “I’ll just go a few miles more and see what’s ahead”. My first tour of the Cabot Trail was completely unplanned and remains one my defining rides – I left my then-home in Antigonish for a quick jaunt at 11am and returned at 8.30pm after having ridden the entire trail with just a few short breaks to take in the scenery. I could hardly stand at the end of the run, and I was babbling in pure elation to my non-riding friends who greeted me when I got home (they never did understand what I was on about, not being riders). That sense of pure adrenaline-fuelled exhaustion is what drives me to be spontaneous in my touring. I love nothing more than leaving without a set goal, and arriving home caked with dead bugs and with my body shaking and cramped from a spectacular and strenuous blast through a set of unfamiliar roads.          

My Montreal-Cape Breton tour took me from Montreal to Moncton, New Brunwick on the first leg, then from Moncton to Baddeck in Cape Breton on the second, two runs around the Cabot Trail, then back to Moncton, and home to Montreal. My longest days were the 600 miles between Montreal and Moncton, a boring run that is best done in a single jaunt across the Transcanada highway to minimize downtime. I attempted to explore some back roads along this route but there was little of interest and most side roads just slowed me down significantly without being much fun. The real purpose of the trip was to ride through Nova Scotia and reach the Cabot Trail, one of the holy grails of riding in Canada.

The Cabot Trail is not that long, about 300kms in a loop around the eastern half of Cape Breton. When you begin riding the trail, you don’t think much of it. It’s scenic backcountry roads winding through small towns… Nothing you haven’t seen before. Then you hit the coastal roads. This is where you will be awestruck. The best roads are within the Highlands National Park, where the pavement is perfectly maintained and the roads are spectacular. The trail winds along the cliff faces hanging over the Atlantic, with hairpins, switchbacks, and 90 degree bends that snake up and down the side of a stunningly beautiful rocky landscape. You’ll cut through thick forests along pine-lined roads, you’ll ride above 200 foot drop-offs into the cold ocean, you’ll stop in coastal fishing towns with pristine beaches and crashing surf. It’s every element of the Maritimes distilled into a short day ride. There are twistier roads out there, and there are longer routes that will try your skills far more. But the Cabot Trail is worthy pilgrimage for any rider that will overwhelm you over with its stunning beauty and variety of landscapes in such a small area. Just be sure to stop on occasion to look out over the amazing scenes at the various lookout points.

The beauty of the Cabot Trail.
I’ve made a point to ride the Cabot Trail as often as I can manage, so for me the trek from Montreal to Cape Breton was something that I would not pass up. I hadn’t had the opportunity to ride the trail on my Ducati (I had ridden the Trail on some of my previous bikes) so it was a necessary pilgrimage for me. The trip was a cathartic experience. I spent many miles and many hours in pain, hunched over my tank bag and popping Advils just to maintain my composure. I could barely walk at the end of my long runs, my legs cramped into a crouch. I smoked profusely during my breaks to ease the tension. None of the discomfort mattered. Riding the Trail with my 916 was an incredible experience, and I am proud to say that I am the psychopath who rode cross-country on a cantankerous Ducati superbike. And I’ll do it again, rationale be damned.  

On the Trail with a buddy’s heavily modified Monster 900. We swapped bikes for a bit. He couldn’t believe I had ridden the 916 from Montreal. I couldn't believe how much torque a Guy Martin-built 2 valve motor stomps out.

Personality

I’ve had the 916 for so long that I can’t really see myself without it. It’s seen me through so much and had such an impact on my life that I don’t see it as just a motorcycle. It’s become a part of my personality.

Me with my first bike, a 1985 BMW K100RS. I started riding when I was 17.
When I began riding Ducatis were the pinnacle for me. They weren’t at the top of the game like they are today. They were still the weird choice, the oddball bikes for riders who craved something distinctive and soulful in a sea of dull cookie-cutter mass-produced sportbikes. They were exotic, beautiful, and always different. Among die-hard Japanese sport bikers, they were idiotic machines that were fragile and expensive to maintain. If you wanted one, like I did, you had something wrong with your priorities. Who would pay so much money for an unreliable, high maintenance, slow bike? That’s what I heard time and time again from my compatriots. When I finally did buy the 916 I was ridiculed and put down for my irrational choice. So I stopped hanging around that crowd.

Today the general attitude has changed a lot. Ducati went from being a boutique brand to a small powerhouse that produces world-beating machines that are far more affordable than they were back in the 90s. Brand awareness is far higher than it used to be, and desire for the product has gone up to match. Their latest superbikes can and will go toe-to-toe with the latest four cylinder rockets. They’ve improved quality and reliability immensely, to the point where a Ducati is no longer any more difficult or expensive to run than anything else on the road.

In other words, they got boring.

I still love the old generation of Ducatis – they are the classic ill-tempered, high maintenance Italian bitch. These old Ducs exude so much character that is lost on the latest generation of riders who will grow up with electronic black magic keeping their asses out of the ditch. These are manly machines, bikes that require thought and effort to ride. They are bikes that need mechanical skill to keep running properly. I’ve developed a masochistic mentality over these past six years. I love my 916 because it is flawed, because it isn’t perfect. I have no desire to have something faster, more reliable, or less maintenance intensive. Where is the fun in that?  But that is just my opinion. Yes, I’m becoming a nostalgic luddite - and I don’t care.

On my way through coastal New Brunswick to meet a friend in Prince Edward Island in 2011.
My 916 has become a significant figure in my life. It drives my passion for motorcycles in a way that no other single machine has. I’ve experienced a lot with it. I met my first love while riding through Ontario. She is gone, but the bike remains. I’ve crossed thousands of miles of Canadian and American territory, witnessing a huge variety of landscapes and meeting many people along the way. I know my bike down to the individual bolts, and can strip it and reassemble it without referring to any manuals. I can close my eyes and visualise all the components in my mind, and how to tear down each sub assembly.

I’ve ridden it so much that everything else I drive feels alien to me. The bike and I are inseparable at this point. I can’t picture myself riding anything else, and my friends will always know me as the (obsessive) guy who has the 916. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

My 916 as it is today.

11 comments:

  1. Bonsoir Jason,

    je me présente, je me nomme Christian Lortie, j'habite Mont-Tremblant et suis l'heureux propriétaire d'un monster S4 2002.

    Je suis tombé sur un "article" que tu as publié en juin 2007 sur le site de ducatimonster.org. Article intitulé "So you want to buy a 916...". Je l'ai évidemment lu et ayant encore soif, j'ai poursuivi mes recherches pour finalement aboutir ici !

    Ton article et ton blog tombent à point. Peut-être connais-tu un certain Paul Lacelle qui habite la région d'Arundel (près de Mont-Tremblant), un autre passionné de Ducati. Une mésanventure ( un contact en moto avec un chevreuil) m'a fait rencontrer cette encyclopédie vivante et à chaque fois que je retourne dans son garage, j'en ai pour des heures à écouter ses histoires les plus invraisemblables les unes que les autres toujours mettant en vedette ses motos préférées...

    Quoiqu'il en soit, en me promenant dans son garage l'autre jour, j'aperçois un modèle de 916 tout transformé pour la piste.

    J'hésitais. Plus maintenant. J'ai eu des frissons dans le dos durant toute la lecture de ton blog. Je me disais "oui, c'est ça que je ressens !!". Je vais donc aller le chercher, puisqu'il a consenti à me le vendre...

    Parfois la vie est bien faite. "Rien n'arrive pour rien" qu'on me dit souvent.

    Dans tous les cas, tu viens de te trouver un lecteur assidu et si l'occasion se présente, ce sera un plaisir pour moi de t'écouter raconter tes anecdotes (les plus insignifiantes soit-elles) entre toi et ta protégée !

    Au plaisir !

    - Christian

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Merci Christian! Excusez mon français - C'est toujours un plaisir d'entendre que mon écriture a inspiré quelqu'un. Je suis heureux d'apprendre que vous avez apprécié mon travail et que vous avez rejoint le club Ducati. Conduisez prudemment et je vous remercie pour vos commentaires.

      Delete
  2. Fabulous Fabulous! Loved the chance to recall my moments on my 916. It's a 95' with 5000 miles....neglected but appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Jason,

    I really enjoyed your style of writing, obvious passion and your spirit of adventure (BTW, have you ever read 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance'?). Think you would relate if not.

    Anyway, as a new owner of a beautiful 996 Italian supermodel, thanks for taking the time to share. I'm from Australia and recently saw Ontario's famous son - Neil Young, in concert in Sydney (speaking of another absolute classic!)

    Cheers
    Rob

    ReplyDelete
  4. I bought a 996 SPS used in 2004. Beautiful bike. Rode it up from Florida to Massachusetts. Fantastic to control, but riding position too aggressive for long distances. After selling it in 2008, I missed the bike and they are pretty rare now.

    Keep yours, its a classic!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Keep yours"
      That's the plan! Have you checked out the OddBike USA Tour? I rode mine from Montreal to New Orleans and back this past October: http://www.odd-bike.com/2013/12/oddbike-usa-tour-2013-travelogue.html

      The SPS is still the only bike I'd sell mine to get a hold of. I would only sell my 916 to get a better 916. I'm been thinking of building a SPS spec motor to slot into mine but that won't happen anytime soon.

      Delete
  5. Hey JC! Randomly stumbled upon your blog here. Small world. Hope all is well my man!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have had my 1996 Biposto since 2001 and it has covered 46000km. Never needed valves adjusted and only had common electrical fault with wiring from regulator to alternator. I agree with your assessment o f the 916. My other bikes are an 2002 FJR and a 2008 Cagiva Mito SP525. I have toured (including camping) easily on the 916 always ending the day relaxed and ready to go again. A New Zealand company Ventura make a rear rack and bag system for the 916 ( you can also use a gearsack). It is easily removed so as not to spoil beautiful lines of the bike. I think you will enjoy a tour much more on your 916 if you used a luggage system like Ventura rather than carry a backpack.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Always drove Honda. But got a cheap st4 and was very afraid of all the negative things People told about the ducati bikes. But I am now beginning to understand the magic of the ducati brand. There is something about this bike that is hard to explain. It is not because it is better/faster than my hondas, but it makes you feel special and a strange kind of way. Quality on every thing from bolts to fairring is a joke compared to honda, typical italian. But the way it takes of and its attitude on the road makes it a true superbike that deserves respeckt.
    Kind regards
    Morten
    denmark

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great article Jason, you're a talented writer and your passion for your Ducati really comes across. I totally agree that no other bike comes close to the engaging experience that Ducati's offer, at least the earlier models. I've been hooked since since I got my first 15 years ago - a '96 Monster 750, which I still own and enjoy as much as I did on the first day I rode her. I've only owned Ducati's since (apart from a misguided and brief fling with an MV Augusta F4). Alongside the Monster I also have a 2002 748R which I've had for 4 years, and had a 2001 748R for 6 years before that. If you think the 916 is a handful around town just try a 748R! All the hassle of the 916, plus a rubbish slipper clutch and F1 type shower injectors to make pulling away from junctions and lights an extremely fraught experience. Not to mention a lack of vents in the fairing panels which get temperatures rising to unbearable levels very quickly. But out on an twisty country road or a track its sublime. It's the best handling bike I've ridden, and I love it's free revving nature.

    I've never actually ridden a 916, but test rode a late 996S years ago and owned a 998S Final Edition (UK spec with the deep sump motor) for 6 years until I sold it a couple of months ago. The Testrastretta engine was a huge step forward in development but it definitely lost some of the character of the Desmoquattros. The 998 is easy to ride fast; very refined and smooth compared to the 748R, but somehow less soulful, and that's the reason I stuck with the R, despite it being a nightmare around town.

    Another thing I think you expressed really well is that the Desmoquattro bikes demand 100% commitment, otherwise they're a real handful. It's essential to be totally focused to get the best out of these bikes, but in return they'll reward you effort like no other two wheeled machine can!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi there, great bike! My name is Hans from Practical Sportsbikes magazine in England - we're doing an article on people who've restored Ducati 748/916/996s, and yours looks a cracker. Would you be up for talking to me about it? I'm on hansseeberg@hotmail.com if so. Cheers! Hans

    ReplyDelete